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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Extensions, Extensions, Extensions!

Echoing the chant “Developers, Developers, Developers” that Steve Ballmer of Microsoft famously shouted while extolling the virtues of software developers, this week’s article is about Extensions, Extensions, Extensions! Everyone knows what a web browsers is, but perhaps less know about some of the great extensions available that as their namesake implies, significantly extend the capabilities of the browser.

You may have noticed I said “this week’s article” above. My apologies to my cadre of devoted readers, but I’ve been finding it difficult to post quality material more often than once a week at best. Someday I’ll be able to do more, and I hope that you’ll stick around to see it.

There are quite a few web browsers out there nowadays, but this article will focus on extensions available for my favorite, the Google Chrome web browser. When possible I’ll also note when an extension is available for the equally capable and popular Mozilla Firefox browser. I used to use Firefox for many years as an alternative to the (then) abysmal Internet Explorer browser (IE). While IE has grown by leaps and bounds since Firefox first came onto the scene (and may further leap forward with the upcoming IE 10 browser), I’ve used it sparingly and only when needed ever since my initial defection. I switched to Chrome the it was released as it offered a wonderfully simple and elegant interface, along with some great syncing capabilities, and rapid releases of new features. Firefox has since caught right up and can fight toe to toe (or is it URL to URL?) with Chrome, but so far I’m still sticking with Chrome.

Caveat Emptor: Extensions are usually a wonderful addition to any browser, but they don’t come without cost in terms of performance. They will use additional RAM while the browser is running (which usually isn't a problem on modern-day PCs), and can have bugs of their own that might reduce the performance or stability of your browser. For these reasons, I try to limit the number of extensions I have enabled. 

So without further ado, let’s get to the extensions I use most often. Here is a list that is loosely prioritized by order of importance.

The Extensions

InvisibleHand: I’ve mentioned that I love Amazon before, and I’ll mention again. Their prices are great and their Amazon Prime service is indispensable to me. They don’t always have the best prices though, and a fantastic tool that often saves me cash is InvisibleHand. Students of economics will recognize the term “Invisible Hand” as one of the central pillars of modern day capitalism which describes the self-regulating theory about marketplaces. It should surprise few that a tool based on allowing consumers to efficiently choose the best prices would name itself after this theory.

This extension is fantastic as it discretely hides itself unless you are browsing a product page at any online shopping portal. Once you browse to a product you are interested in, a yellow bar pops down from the top of the browser window and suggests other locations that may have cheaper prices. If your retailer has the best prices, it comforts you by informing you of this fact.

Check out the image below with an example of when InvisibleHand could save you big money:

Download InvisibleHand for Chrome or Firefox

Xmarks: Despite the syncing capability of Chrome, I prefer to use Xmarks when it comes to syncing my browser bookmarks. Originally beginning life as a Firefox extension, Xmarks not only allows me to keep bookmarks in sync between Chrome browsers on my various PCs, but also between any installations of Firefox, IE, or Safari that I have. If you choose to upgrade to a premium account for $12 per year, you can also make use mobile apps they have for iOS and Android. At any time, I can login to the website to browse my bookmarks if I am on a public PC, or even restore old versions of my bookmark list.

Download Xmarks Bookmark Sync for Chrome, or Firefox

Adblock Plus: I fully recognize that I may be committing professional suicide by suggesting that my readers use an extension that blocks all web ads, but I feel it is my greater duty to not ignore the truth. The truth of the matter is that while my blog has ads for supporting my efforts (please click on my ads), this fantastic extension exists which will make you wonder how you ever browsed the web without it.

Adblock can be seen at work in the screenshots below. Without Adblock, I am barraged by no less than three ads on the screen. The next image shows the same article sans ads thanks to the power of Adblock. Oh, and before you use this, please whitelist my site to allow ads as a thank you for pointing you to this extension (and please click on my ads).

Before Adblock Plus

After Adblock Plus

Download Adblock Plus for Chrome or Firefox

Google Quick Scroll: I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Google would restrict their awesome extension to their own Chrome browser. After searching for a word or phrase on Google and clicking on any of the results, Quick Scroll presents an unobtrusive black box in the lower-right corner of the screen allowing you to jump right to the locations on that page where your search terms appear. Take a look at the example below of me searching for the Steve Ballmer reference at the beginning of this post:

Download Google Quick Scroll for Chrome

The Tracktor: I mentioned I love Amazon right? This is another useful shopping tool I use in conjunction with Invisible Hand to save big bucks. The Tracktor automatically inserts price tracking graphs directly into the product pages on Amazon. These graphs display historical pricing over time. In addition to the pricing graphs, I can also mark an item for tracking and be alerted whenever the price drops below a specified threshold. This extension has been a bit buggy as of late when it comes to drawing the graph, but my hope is they will fix it soon. If you want another alternative to The Tracktor, check out the excellent site.

Take a look at The Tracktor in action below:

Download The Tracktor for Chrome or Firefox

Add to Amazon Wish List: I promise I don’t work for Amazon! I do love their Wish List extension though as it allows me to add products I see on any website to my Amazon wish list. I may not even buy the product from Amazon in the end, but I love having a list of all the things my wife and kids won’t let me afford all in one place!

Download Add to Amazon Wish List for Chrome or Firefox

Google Mail and Calendar Checkers: Neither of these extensions are real flashy, but as a Gmail and Google Calendar user, I find them essential for noting when I have a new message or upcoming appointment. The Google Mail checker will display an icon with the number of unread messages in the upper-right corner of the screen and the Google Calendar checker will display an icon with the number of days, hours, or minutes before my next appointment. Both extensions are Chrome only and are made by Google, but similar third-party extensions exist for both Firefox and Chrome.

Rapportive: This is a new one that I am experimenting with. You can think of it as a way of supercharging your mailbox if you use Gmail. After linking it to your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts, it allows you to see additional information about your contacts on the right side of the screen. This info can be anywhere from phone numbers and recent e-mail, to recent status updates on the three social networks. I use similar social connecters for my work e-mail through Outlook 2010 so I felt right at home having this type of information available in Gmail.

Download Rapportive for Chrome or Firefox

Google Voice: This extension is not to be confused with the phone calling feature available in Gmail. Rather, this allows me to check my Google Voice mailbox for voicemail or text, and also allows me to turn many phone numbers on websites into clickable links that I can select to automatically initiate a phone call from my cell phone to the number in question.

Download Google Voice for Chrome

Language Immersion: This a peculiar new one that I am just trying out as it was recently released. This allows you to select a language of your choice (sadly for me, Japanese is not yet available) and have a small number of words on any web page automatically translated into that language. The idea behind this is that you'll be more immersed in the language and pick it up more quickly when the words are interspersed with your native language. Check out the example below where select words from an article I found were translated into German. A simple click of the word will translate it back to my native language. The amount of words translated can be set by selecting your proficiency level, and the extension can be easily turned on or off at will.

Download Language Immersion for Chrome

Additional extensions can be found on the Chrome Web Store, or the Mozilla Add-Ons page for Firefox. In regards to Chrome, make sure to not confuse extensions with apps. As part of their Chromebook project, Google added a new App category to their Chrome Web Store. These apps don’t enhance functionality when navigating to any given website as an extension would, but rather are destinations in and of themselves just like a website would be. In fact, many times they are nothing more than a bookmark to a website. Other times they offer unique functionality. Take for example the USA Today, and Angry Birds apps that mimic the same functionality you would find in an iPad app right in your Chrome browser. 

Feel free to sound off in the comments below if you have any other suggestions on awesome extensions I may have missed.